Why Seneca was wrong

In his ‘Letters to Lucilius’ Seneca expounds his version of Stoic philosophy. As I explain in my review of the letters, I think they consist more of a mix of moral exhortation and self-help advice than a fully worked-out ‘philosophy’. But on the occasions when he does set out to argue from first principles I find myself quite strongly disagreeing with just about every assertion and every argument Seneca makes. Letter 76 lays out the premises of Seneca’s philosophy with particular clarity (a ‘premise’ being defined as “a statement taken to be true and used as a basis for argument or reasoning”) from which I extract the following sequence of assertions.

Seneca’s argument

Seneca says there is a God who made the universe and created man. Wrong.

Seneca says God planted a fragment of divine Reason in man. Wrong. No God, no divine Reason.

Seneca says every created thing has one particular merit or attribute which sets it apart – the fruit of the vine, the speed of the stag, the strong back of a pack animal, the hunting dog’s sense of smell and so on. The one distinctive attribute of human beings is Reason. Wrong:

a) This notion that every thing has just one peculiar merit is primitive and childish. Quite clearly all living organisms have multiple features and qualities. Study biology.

b) To say that the One Special Thing about humans is Reason is a wild underestimate of the numberless qualities which contribute to human survival and evolution. As one example, according to my son the biologist, humans can run for longer than any other animal, not a massively important attribute but a refutation of Seneca’s claim that there is just one thing which sets humans apart from other animals. Then there’s also the small factor of the opposable thumb, which gives us the ability to manipulate tools and develop the countless inventions and technologies we have devised – far more distinctive than ‘divine Reason’.

(As an indication of how malleable this argument is, I have just read in Tacitus’s Histories the stirring speech of Gaius Julius Civilis who tells his warriors that The One Distinctive Thing About Humans is Courage [Tacitus, Histories, book 4, chapter 17]. 1,900 years later, Jean-Paul Sartre would claim the One Distinctive Thing About Humans is our existentialist Freedom. It’s a parlour game. Anyone can join in.)

c) Anyway, humans are emphatically not rational. Humans are wildly irrational. A book like Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality, which brings together a century of psychological study of how clumsily and irrationally all humans think, almost all the time, demolishes the Rationalist argument forever.

d) The entire form of this argument is tendentious because it is clearly designed to justify what follows.

Seneca says all these animals are designed to ‘reach the goal of their nature’ i.e. they aspire to maximise the distinctive attribute given to them by God. Wrong. There is no God and this one, special attribute doesn’t exist. Seneca has invented it for the sake of his argument.

Seneca says that, seeing as man’s one special attribute is Reason, and that all beings find their greatest fulfilment when they maximise their one special attribute, it follows that man will be happiest and most fulfilled when he cultivates his Reason to the max.

Well:

a) It’s wrong to say that man’s one special attribute is ‘Reason’.

b) Humans are wildly irrational.

c) Since it doesn’t exist, this ‘Reason’ can’t be developed to the max as if that implies one, widely agreed state of mind.

d) If this notion of ‘Reason’ actually existed, surely all ‘philosophers’ would agree about it, whereas anyone who’s read a bit of philosophy immediately discovers that there are hundreds of ‘philosophies’ and philosophers who completely contradict each other.

e) Far from ‘philosophy’ making its practitioners calm and content, there’s plenty of evidence that some of the greatest philosophers were deeply unhappy individuals: characters as different as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein spring to mind. There is no evidence whatsoever that someone who practices ‘philosophy’ is more happy than the general run of the population.

(By this point it should be clear that although Seneca uses philosophical-sounding arguments to support his case, he isn’t really dealing in philosophy but with lessons in mental resilience and moral uplift.)

Seneca goes on to say that when this ‘Reason’ is brought to ‘perfection’ through the study of ‘philosophy’, ‘this perfected reason is called virtue’ (Letter 76, section 10). This also is obviously wrong:

a) There is no such thing as ‘Reason’ with a capital R, instead:

i) Two and a half thousand years of philosophers can’t agree what ‘Reason’ is or how it works.

ii) According to psychologists like Sutherland, instead of One Reason humans use hundreds of different strategies for thinking and problem solving, which often overlap and contradict each other, hence the appearance of the real world we actually live in, made up of endlessly conflicting opinions and plans.

b) What is this ‘virtue’? Seneca identifies ‘virtue’ with the perfection of human ‘Reason’ but by now we can see that this is just playing with words, it’s like moving shiny counters around on a board game, it doesn’t relate to anything in the real world.

Seneca goes on to identify this maximised Reason with ‘virtue’ and ‘the good’ and ‘the honourable’. I appreciate that Seneca is engaging with the tradition of moral philosophy which is concerned with trying to define terms like ‘the good’, ‘honour’, ‘virtue’ but I believe that, mildly entertaining although these verbal games are, they have little or nothing to do with real people or the actual world we live in. Within the rules of the game called ‘moral philosophy’ these kinds of definitions and redefinitions may have meaning, but it is a niche activity with no impact on the real world.

Also, it often feels as if Seneca is using rhetorical tricks to prove that His Way is the Only Way to achieve these great goals i.e. it is less an open-ended enquiry designed to establish an objective truth than a tendentious distortion of arguments all designed to ‘prove’ a view of human nature and a way of life which he already subscribes to. It amounts to a wordy rationalisation of a personal lifestyle preference (to live a simple life and read books is best).

The counter-argument to Seneca

There is no God. The universe came about in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Certain laws and regularities emerge from the nature of the matter created by this cataclysm. Stars form, galaxies form,  planets form around suns. Conditions for life happened to occur on this planet as they probably have on countless others. Primitive replicating structures come about as an inevitable product of chemistry. As soon as the most primitive replicating organisms come about they are governed by evolution through natural selection, which dictates that only the most fit will replicate, thus setting in train an endless process of diversity and selection. Human beings are a random offshoot of mammals, themselves lucky to survive the last great extinction event 66 million years ago. There is no teleology or purpose or plan. Shit happens, whether it’s your valley flooding or a meteor hitting the earth, and some organisms survive to pass on their genes to their offspring. Over vast distances of time – hundreds of millions of years – fast-breeding organisms have diverged to fill every available niche in countless different ecosystems which themselves change and evolve all the time. Modern archaeology shows that there is not one human race, but that over the past few hundred thousand years, many different forms of the genus Homo have sprung up, flourished for a time, then died out. Seneca and we happen to belong to the one branch or variety which happens to have survived. Others might have; we happened to. There was no God, providence or teleology involved.

To attribute this immensely long chain of chance and accident to the providence of some creator God is psychologically appealing but factually ludicrous. If there is a God behind it then he works so completely through accident and mass extinction as to be indistinguishable from randomness.

Therefore humans do not possess some ‘divine Reason’ which can be cultivated to its maximum potential at which point it can grandly be called ‘virtue’. The exact opposite. Humans quite evidently employ hundreds, maybe thousands of different mental strategies, tricks and approaches to solve the problems thrown up by day-to-day existence, and struggle daily to implement our deep biological drives (to eat and drink, get shelter, find a mate, raise a new generation, find physical and psychological security) against the challenges of the rebarbative real world, with all kinds of florid, varied and unpredictable outcomes.

Summary

Seneca’s theistic rationalism looks for and privileges One Thing in every field: One God, One Human Race, One Reason, One Virtue, One Philosophy.

Although I can see the appeal of submitting to this One World point of view – I can see the comfort it brings to its adherents or even to modern readers who bathe in its simple-minded reassurance while they’re reading his text (and I can also see how so much of Stoicism was incorporated into the equally consoling and comforting One World Christian ideology) – nonetheless, I find it creepy, I detect in it authoritarian, even totalitarian tendencies. To genuinely believe that there is just One Way to Virtue which all people should submit themselves to…

And it also happens to be factually incorrect at every step.

By contrast, I believe in diversity, in manyness, in multitudes. In my worldview humans have evolved over a very long period to possess incredibly complex mental and physical attributes, far too complex and multifaceted to encompass in one definition, in one ‘philosophy’, in one set of magic words like ‘Reason’, ‘good’ and ‘virtue’, even in words like ‘science’ or ‘biology’. The real world continually surprises us and overflows all human attempts at neat definitions, whether in philosophy, religion, science or any other system.

People are quite obviously capable of believing all kinds of things, struggle with all kinds of problems, use all manner of beliefs and faiths and rites and rituals and traditions and cultures to get them through their days and lives. All these belief systems and practices are themselves constantly evolving, added to, improved, fossilise, dumped, revived, you name it – with the result that human cultures are mind-bogglingly rich and diverse and many-sided – far too many to summarise or encapsulate in this prescriptive One World dogma.

Conclusion

Therefore it is my view that, although I can see why, narrowly appealing and comforting though Seneca’s teachings may appear at a first reading, they are nonetheless not only a) factually incorrect at every level, at every step or his argument, but b) derive from an incredibly narrow social caste (the Roman aristocracy) during an incredibly narrow moment in history (Nero’s tyranny).

Seneca’s letters are worth reading because they give a vivid insight into the mindset of a very clever man situated very close to a terrifyingly arbitrary tyrant and working out a philosophical tradition he inherited from Greek originators to fit his very specific (and very fraught) circumstances (hence the obsessive belief in suicide as an escape from tyranny).

He circles around central Stoic beliefs, reviewing them from different angles in different contexts and this provides a very useful, panoramic view of this particular belief system – and a fascinating insight into a particular cultural moment.

And many of his recommendations – shorn of their theistical underpinning – are of value, at least to the kind of reader who is already predisposed to bookish aloofness. Avoid the crowd, despise pleasure, cultivate the life of the mind, rise above the chaos of petty emotions and transient enjoyments – all this reads very well and flatters a certain kind of bookish reader who may believe that they already practice some or all of these prescriptions.

But then surely these precepts are taught by the high-minded in pretty much every major religion: surely this kind of advice can be found not only in the Christianity which incorporated so much of it, but in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism and countless other religious traditions? Or expounded by high-minded secular humanists. Ignore the trashy entertainments of the masses, despise the vulgar trappings of wealth, be content with the simple life, concentrate on acquiring wisdom.

Widespread though his conclusions may be, because they speak to a certain character type which recurs across diverse cultures, and propose a type of psychological practice which clearly speaks to a certain type of person — to focus back on the specific arguments Seneca uses to justify and underpin his philosophy – the logical sequence of arguments which I summarised at the start of this post – I have explained why I believe they are factually incorrect and intellectually untenable from start to finish.


Related links

On the diversity of belief systems

Roman reviews

The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 1

The more I think about history, ancient or modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem.
(Annals of ancient Rome by Tacitus, page 127)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians. He held high official positions, being consul in 97 and governor of Anatolia in 113.

His two major works – the Annals and the Histories – cover the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus (14 AD) to the death of Domitian (96 AD), although there are substantial gaps in the surviving texts.

Saint Jerome stated that The Histories and Annals together amounted to 30 books. Scholars traditionally assign 16 books to the Annals and 14 books to the Histories. Of the 30 books mentioned by Jerome only about half have survived.

Three other, lesser works by Tacitus survive in their entirety:

  • a dialogue about oratory, in which two lawyers and two literary men discuss the claims of oratory against literature (published 102)
  • a study of Germany and the German tribes (the Germania, published about 98)
  • a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola (the Agricola, published about 98)

Incomplete

The Annals were Tacitus’s final work. The Histories, although published earlier, cover the later part of his period, from 68 to 96 AD. The Annals, though published later, cover the earlier period, from the end of the reign of Augustus, through those of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero, covering the years 14 to 68 AD, the year when Nero committed suicide.

But the absolutely key thing about the Annals is that half of them are missing. There are dirty great gaps in the narrative, big holes in the story.

We have the first part, a good continuous narrative from the end of Augustus’s reign (14) through most of Tiberius’s rule (14 to 37) in detail. But the text breaks off after the death of Tiberius and the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47) are missing. The narrative then resumes for the last seven or so years of Claudius (47 to 54) and the entire reign of Nero (54 to 68), at which point the narrative of the Annals connects with that of the Histories.

The best

Tacitus’s is the earliest and best account we have of this crucial period in western history. We do also possess the biographies of the first 12 emperors by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122), Tacitus’s younger contemporary, which cover the exact same period and were published around 120 AD; and it’s true that Suetonius was an imperial secretary (to Hadrian) and so had access to imperial archives and was able to amass much curious and colourful material in his biographies. But Suetonius followed the conventions of his time in thinking ‘biography’ a much less serious genre than ‘history’ and so didn’t attempt the deeper analysis and wider scope which Tacitus achieves.

The other main source for this period is the Greek historian Lucius Cassius Dio (155 to 235) who wrote a vast history of Rome from its foundation up to his own time in no fewer than 80 volumes. But Michael Grant, the translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, considers Dio ‘pedestrian’ and lacking ‘the imagination to grasp the affairs of the early empire’.

So although there are these two other sources, nonetheless Tacitus:

is the best literary source for the events of the early principate that we possess.

The purpose of history

Like everyone in the ancient world, Tacitus thought writing had a moral purpose. Grant’s introduction spends some time untangling the complicated relationship in Tacitus’s time between history, rhetoric and philosophy.

For a start all these genres – poetry, history, tragedy and comedy, eulogy and lyric poetry – were pioneered by the ancient Greeks. The Romans only began to copy these genres hundreds of years after the Greeks had brought them to a first perfection. (The first Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote his Histories about 430 BC, whereas the first Roman historian, Cato the Elder, wrote his Origines 250 years later, about 180 BC.)

Grant tells us that history, as a genre, grew out of poetry. First came Homer and Hesiod (700 BC?) and only centuries later, the first of the Greek historians – Thucydides b.460 and Herodotus b.430. For a very long time ‘history’ was regarded as a subsidiary form of literature.

This explains the elements of the dramatic found in Tacitus, for example the extended speeches he gives characters at various points which, scholars think, were almost all entirely invented by Tacitus. He attributed to leading characters in the narrative beautifully structured speeches which expressed the kinds of things they ought to have said at the most dramatic or pivotal moments.

And from the tradition of Greek tragedy comes an urge to make events seem tragic and terrible. You can feel this at moments in the narrative where, after trundling through a list of law cases and official appointments, Tacitus returns to the year’s activities of Tiberius or Nero and, suddenly, the narrative takes on a more colourful, sometimes stricken, tone, as he talks up the appalling reign of terror which Tiberius assembled or the terrible acts of the sadist and murderer Nero. You can almost hear him cranking up the horror. Which is why some scholars question whether things really were as bad under Tiberius and Nero as Tacitus claimed or whether some, at least, of the horror is included for dramatic effect.

Alongside drama went didacticism, the urge to teach and instruct, which grew, according to Grant, in popularity in the Greek world from the 4th century BC onwards. Tacitus takes a deeply moral line. He is concerned not only with recording everything which happened in a specific year, but giving his opinion about it.

Tacitus’s history is a succession of issues by which I mean a record of each year’s military campaigns, appointments of officials, promulgating of laws, prosecuting of officials or criminals, the character of particular officials (governors, generals, the emperors themselves) and so on – all of which Tacitus gives his opinion about. It is a very opinionated history.

Tacitus is in no doubt that the fundamental purpose of his writing is didactic. The aim of history is to teach men to know themselves better and behave better by showing them great examples – of good and terrible behaviour – from the past.

It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.
(p.150; book 3, 64)

Which brings us to another massive topic, which is rhetoric, the art of persuasion, in writing and speaking. Rhetoric was the central element of the educational syllabus of the well-educated in the ancient world, and was explained in a stream of famous and complex manuals.

Thus a writer like Cicero, in his De legibus, says that history’s first concern may be recording the truth, but very close afterwards comes the need to a) persuade his audience and b) to sound well. This brings us back in a circle to history’s origins as a child of poetry. By Tacitus’s time it had travelled a long way from its parent but hadn’t shaken off the expectation that the historian would, as well as being a good researcher of facts, be an artist of prose.

Hence (to repeat a bit) the importance of the set-piece speeches Tacitus invented for his historical personages. The speeches are not only appropriate for the personage and the situation, they exploit the personage and the situation to put on a good show – in order to demonstrate the author’s skill at making a case, and to tickle the taste buds of the educated Roman audience who enjoyed savouring and judging well-made rhetoric and oratory.

Many of the set-piece passages in Tacitus were almost certainly written to be declaimed i.e. read aloud to an audience trained to its fingertips in the art of rhetoric, who would spot and appreciate the author’s various tricks and skills.

Conceived as accurate depictions of what actually happened, written in order to promote good behaviour and deprecate bad behaviour, Tacitus’s writings also had an interest in bringing out dramatic moments and presenting successive cases and arguments with all the skills of an orator. (For example, the passage in book 1, sections 7 to 10, where Tacitus puts the case for, and then the case against, Augustus’s achievements.) It’s a colourful, rich and often highly artistic combination.

Sententiae

Alongside and accompanying this overtly didactic aim, Tacitus from time to time throws in sententiae or pithy comments on history, society and human nature. these were a well-known part of his style and were quoted and excerpted for a millennium and a half afterwards. However, the modern reader may feel that, beneath their air of profundity, they are often strangely anodyne.

So the avenging of Germanicus ended. Contradictory rumours have raged around it among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of errors are magnified by time. (p.128, book 3, section 18)

It would be easy to enjoy and dismiss the sententiae without realising their true significance. Tacitus is trying to understand human nature by stepping back and commenting on aspects of what he sees, which arise naturally from his subject matter (the origins of tyranny) or his researches (how very prone people are to believe all kinds of rumours and lies).

He is investigating the nature of what is remembered, and why, and how fictions so quickly arise to fulfil people’s expectations.

Sejanus, too much loved by Tiberius and hated by everyone else, passed for the author of every crime; and rumours always proliferate around the downfalls of the great. For such reasons even the most monstrous myths found believers…My own motive in mentioning and refuting the rumour has been to illustrate by one conspicuous instance the falsity of hearsay gossip, and to urge those who read this book not to prefer incredible tales – however widely current and readily accepted – to the truth unblemished by marvels.
(p.162, book 4, section 9)

Fairly obvious though they seem to us, these kinds of reflection on human nature and the psychology of society was much rarer in ancient times. Although they were to some extent expected in history as a genre, it is always fascinating to read these occasional insights, not into society as such, but into how ancient authors thought about their society and about social change.

No chapter markers

I read the Annals in the translation by Michael Grant published by Penguin in 1956. It is a clear, forceful translation making for an enjoyable read (if you like Roman and military history) but with one massive flaw. Most Roman texts were divided by the author into numbered sections which modern editors, not entirely accurately, often call ‘chapters’.

The Annals and Histories are divided into these numbered sections, which are themselves gathered into ‘books’. But Grant or his editor took the decision not to include these chapter numbers in the text, which is inconvenient. It would have been useful to know which book and which section various events occur in.

Robert Graves’s translation of Suetonius and Kenneth Wellesley’s translation of Tacitus’s Histories, both for Penguin, do keep the section numbers in –so that every other paragraph or so starts with a number – and this allows you to compare their texts with other translations available online by referring to these numbers. You can go straight to the precise section of the other translations and make comparisons very easily. And, when I quote a sentence or two in my blog, I can cite the precise section it occurs in, for everyone’s convenience.

You simply can’t do that with the Grant translation. The book number and chapter number are given in the header at the top of each page, but this covers all the contents of both pages and so is very imprecise, and leaves you having to guess which chapter number applies to a particular paragraph. Very irritating.

Annalistic

What is an annal, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines an annal as ‘a record of the events of one year’ and annals in the plural as a record of events arranged in a year-by-year sequence. Thus Tacitus proceeds, rather pedantically, a year at a time. This means he doesn’t describe long-running themes which ran over successive years, as a whole. Instead he tells you everything which happened in 14 AD. Then everything which happened in 15 AD. And so on.

Sources

1. Apparently, the initial scaffolding of the work was based on annual notices called the ‘Records of the Priests’. These were primarily religious in nature but since the Roman year was packed with celebrations and festivals a lot of the other business of the state (elections, wars, trials) began to be mentioned and then actively recorded in the Records. By the second century BC historians who used these sources had become known generally as the Annalists. They provide an obvious precedent for Tacitus’s work.

2. Tacitus also mentions searching ‘histories and official journals as part of his researches (p.120), a note from Grant telling us this latter refers to the acta diurna which began to be kept in the year of Julius Caesar’s first consulship (59 BC).

3. He also, like Suetonius, at some points refers to stories he himself heard from those alive at the time, and so gives a version of Piso’s eventual death ‘given by people who were alive when I was young’ (p.126).

4. And he balances the written record with hearsay, the oral tradition which is so often lost and so is valuable that Tacitus recorded:

In describing Drusus’ death I have followed the most numerous and reputable authorities. But I should also record a contemporary rumour, strong enough to remain current today…’ (p.163, book 4 section 10)

(This rumour was that Sejanus not only seduced Drusus’s wife, Livilla, into becoming his lover and helping him poison her husband, Drusus – but also seduced Drusus’ eunuch, Lygdus, to help in the conspiracy.)

Sallust

Grant sees the key figure in the Roman tradition before Tacitus as being Sallust, author of a lost history as well as studies of the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy, which have survived. Sallust was popular because of the drama and energy of his narratives, spliced with exciting speeches, most notably the long speeches he attributes to Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger in the Catiline conspiracy – combining artistry and rhetoric.

‘Next’

This explains why one of the key words in Grant’s translation is ‘next’. Tiberius did this. ‘Next’ x and y were installed as consuls for the year. ‘Next’ the Senate debated a motion to prosecute this or that governor. ‘Next’ there were rebellions by the following tribes on the following borders of the empire. ‘Next’ Tiberius announced a new policy to enforce z.

The summary of each year opens by naming the consuls for that year:

  • In the next year the consuls were Servius Cornelius Cetegus and Lucius Visellius Varro… (p.165)
  • In the following year the consuls were Cossus Cornelius Lentulus and Marcus Asinius Agrippa… (p.173)

And ends with a brief list of notable figures who died during it:

  • At the end of the year two notable Romans died… (p.134)
  • Two eminent men died this year…’ (p.155)

And so on. On one level it is a record of events which really is just ‘one damn thing after another’. As I got into the text I realised that, although broad chapter titles Grant assigns to big blocks of narrative (see below) are zippy and dramatic, it would make a lot more sense to layout the narrative by year, starting a new ‘chapter’ with each year to really bring out the year-by-year annalistic nature of the text.

By ‘everything’ I mean a fairly narrow, limited range of concerns. Tacitus frequently refers to his own researches in state records. The point being that his narrative appears to be based on the brief records which Roman officials had been keeping for centuries of a) appointments to the key magistracies; b) debates and decisions of the Senate, regarding new laws or the prosecution of leading figures for breaching various laws; c) military campaigns; d) important court cases, often the prosecution of provincial governors for corruption.

Tacitus lays out a list of these kinds of events for each year and then expands on them, giving further background where required, especially about the individuals concerned, their family and character, and explaining what happened in each instance. These kinds of things form what you could call the background hum of the narrative.

No social or economic history

There is very little about a subject which has become central to modern history, which is economics. The ancients had little or no understanding of economics. Like his peers, Tacitus will say ‘in this year there was a shortage of wheat or grain’ and that food prices went up or there was scarcity leading to riots, prompting the emperor to intervene and buy up huge amounts to be distributed cheaply to the population of Rome. But that’s about it.

And there’s nothing at all about the lives or experiences of the common people, except for occasional references to the mob or riots. It is very much a personal history of the very top echelons of society, the senatorial class and the so-called ‘knights’. And it is a moral history of their personal attitudes and behaviour.

The emperors

But laid over the top of the background hum of the year-to-year events is what you could call the juiciest element of the Annals, which is the cumulative portrait of the emperors being (since we lack Caligula altogether) Tiberius, Claudius and Nero.

The most famous biographer of this period, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122) has left us, among copious other writings, a famous set of biographies of the first 12 emperors (Lives of the Caesars) which covers the exact same period as Tacitus’s Annals and Histories. The two works can be read side by side.

Suetonius’s biographies are relatively brief (40 or so pages in the Penguin translation). After a shortish chronological section detailing the objective historical events of their reigns, Suetonius moves onto personal aspects of his subjects, arranged like a PowerPoint presentation under specific headings (personal attributes, appearance, wives and offspring and so on) under which he groups facts or events to illustrate each of his topics. These often contain juicy gossip and quirky facts (such as Augustus’s distinctive birthmarks or his habit of wearing a big floppy hat when he went out to protect him from the sun) which make them pithy and memorable.

Tacitus, by contrast, presents us with one long continuous narrative. This means there is a great deal more content, especially in two particular areas: domestic policy and military campaigns.

Suetonius lists the aspects of the emperors and then illustrates them by anecdotes, jumping around place and time to provide evidence. Tacitus, by contrast, proceeds, in a slightly plodding way, through the key events of each year, as he’s derived them from studying the official records of the senate, the elections, the law courts etc. And out of this list of events grows his analysis of the emperor. The prosecution of this or that official brings out this side of the emperor. The handling of a military campaign highlights that side of his personality. And so on. Far more historical information.

Books and titles

As I’ve mentioned Grant doesn’t structure his narrative by the books and sections of the original text. Instead he creates his own ‘chapters’, giving them titles (which I’m pretty sure aren’t in the original). The aim is to add drama and give his narrative the feel of a novel. They are:

Part one: Tiberius

  1. From Augustus to Tiberius (book 1, sections 1 to 15)
  2. Mutiny on the Frontiers (book 1, sections 16 to 49)
  3. War with the Germans (book 1 section 49 to book 2 section 26)
  4. The First Treason Trials (book 2 sections 27 to 52)
  5. The Death of Germanicus (book 2 section 53 to book 3 section 19)
  6. Tiberius and the Senate (book 3 sections 19 to 76)
  7. ‘Partner of my labours’ (p.158) [about Sejanus] (books 4 and 5)
  8. The reign of terror (book 6)

Part two: Claudius and Nero:

  1. The fall of Messalina (book 11)
  2. The Mother of Nero (book 12)
  3. The fall of Agrippina (book 13 to book 14 section 13)
  4. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  5. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  6. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  7. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  8. Innocent victims (book 16)

Tiberius

Unlike sociable Augustus, Tiberius comes over as ‘profoundly secretive’ (p.140), ‘cryptic’ (p.143) ambiguous and unpredictable. In his introduction Grant points out that Tacitus attributes to Tiberius all the qualities of a villain of melodrama, the stock tyrant of ancient literature: he is portrayed as unjust, sensual, cruel and, above all, suspicious and cunning.

Livia

His mother, Augustus’s widow, Livia – who was given the ominous title ‘the Augusta’ – is, if anything, worse, a monster of malicious manipulation. It’s often difficult to spot the moment at which the transition takes place, but quite often, when reading about these two, you realise the text has turned into a pantomime and the audience is meant to be booing and hissing the baddies.

Germanicus

Every panto needs a hero and this deep tendency – to cast things into dramatic shape – explains the tremendous shininess with which the young prince, Germanicus, is depicted, Tacitus emphasising his graciousness, openness, honesty, his ability to get on with people and his great military victories in Germany, in order to contrast all of this with Tiberius’s negative versions of the same virtues, with Tiberius’s surliness, suspicion, duplicity, holing up in Rome (and then retirement to Capri).

Germanicus in Germany

In his notes Grant brings out something I had sensed or felt in the narrative but wasn’t sure about, which is that Germanicus’s campaigns in Germany (against the Cherusci, led by Arminius, the Chatti, the Marsi and other rebel tribes), dramatic and extended through they were, were ultimately an expensive waste of time resulting in no permanent conquests or treaties.

The most memorable part of these early books is Tacitus’s descriptions of the very hard-fought battles in the mud and undergrowth of the endless German forest and then, above all else, the terrific description of the huge storm in the North Sea which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet, which destroyed many ships and drowned many soldiers. Tacitus’s account has a Hollywood blockbuster feel to it (pages 87 to 88).

 The North Sea is the roughest in the world and the German climate the worst. The disaster was proportionately terrible – indeed, it was unprecedented. (p.87)

All the more horrifying that Tacitus presents the evidence for and against the widely held suspicion that Germanicus was poisoned by the governor of Syria, Cnaius Calpurnius Piso, where Germanicus had been sent to lead the military campaign in Armenia. (Germanicus dies on page 113, book 2 section 69, warning his wife against Tiberius’s malevolence.)

Tiberius’s decline

The headline story of Tiberius’s reign (14 to 37) is that it was in two parts. While he was finding his feet Tiberius was cautious and stuck to the letter of the law, abiding by all of Augustus’s decisions. But slowly, slowly, in a score of ways – through the way he managed and cowed the Senate, made appointments to the army, in his spiky relations with his biological son (Drusus) and adopted son (Germanicus), in his revival of the treason law (p.73) and encouragement of informers and spies (‘It was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic’, p.203), and especially on his growing reliance on the creepy figure of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard – Tiberius became slowly more tyrannical.

Although the treason trials (for ‘crimes’ as trivial as swearing in the vicinity of a statue of Augustus) began as early as 16 (p.90), Tacitus cites 23 AD as the year when Tiberius’s rule began to deteriorate (p.159, book 4, section 3) and he is quite brutal in describing the total compliance which Tiberius created:

The impressiveness of the Republican facade only meant that the slave-state, which was to grow out of them, would be all the more loathsome. (p.77, 1.77)

Tiberius is so important to Tacitus because it was under him that the weakness and corruption of one-man rule became clear. Tiberius set the pattern that later autocrats and tyrants copied.

It was under Tiberius that freedom suffered its most fatal losses. (Grant, Introduction, p.21)

Augustus had spent half his life in the Republic and had the immense skill to retain a tactful facade of republicanism even as he took more and more control of things. And he was canny with people.

He seduced the army with bonuses and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. He attracted everybody’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials and even the law. (p.32, book 1 section 1)

Tiberius was high-minded and principled in many ways but lacked Augustus’s social and interpersonal skills. Cold and distant, he alienated people.

What Tiberius said, even when he did not aim at concealment, was – by habit or nature – always hesitant, always cryptic. (p.39, 1.10)

And had never known the republic. All he knew was his own wishes, which slowly became an unreliable guide to rule by and the result was a slow descent into a reign of terror. As he has a character say:

‘In spite of all his experience of public affairs, Tiberius was transformed and deranged by absolute power.’ (book 6, section 48)

As witnessed by the fact that it was widely believed that he conspired in the deaths of his adopted (and too popular) son, Germanicus (widely held to have commissioned Piso to poison him out in the Middle East) and then of his own son, Drusus, who Tacitus frankly claims was poisoned by Tiberius’s creature, Sejanus (p.161, book 4, section 6).

The first couple of books focus, memorably and vividly, on Germanicus’s campaigns in god-forsaken mud and forest of tribal Germany. But the institution Tacitus most analyses is the Senate, recording event after event, debates, and decisions, and consular elections, which step by step mark its descent into grovelling sycophancy towards the increasingly terrifying emperor. It is from Tacitus that we learn that Tiberius frequently left the Senate muttering, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ (p.150)

Tiberius retires to Capri, 28 AD

Finally Tiberius quit the Italian mainland and, in 28 AD, retired to the island of Capri where he stayed holed up for the last 11 years of his life (he died in 37 AD, aged 77). He no longer attended the senate, as he had done assiduously, or the law courts, as he had done, inspiring fear and intimidation. Now all government business was conducted by letter.

Access to him was harder now. It was only procurable by intrigue and complicity. (p.194)

Tacitus thinks he did it partly to get away from his nagging mother, Livia, partly because he genuinely found the daily task of attending the senate or the law courts and so on gruelling. And partly to indulge the sensual lusts and perversions which became harder to control as he aged.

For his criminal lusts shamed him. Their uncontrolled activity was worthy of an oriental tyrant. Free-born children were his victims. He was fascinated by beauty, youthful innocence, and aristocratic birth. New names for types of perversions were invented. (p.200 cf p.202)

And so on. More details are given in Suetonius’s deliberately scandalous Life of Tiberius.

Death of Livia, 29 AD

She was a compliant wife to Augustus but an overbearing mother to Tiberius. Tacitus thinks part of his motivation in retiring to Capri was to be free of her endless nagging. (That and his wish to indulge his disreputable personal behaviour.) With her death Tiberius’s restraint was thrown to the wind.

Now began a time of sheer crushing tyranny. (p.196)

Tiberius and Sejanus began to persecute Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina (the Elder). He sent a letter to Rome denouncing her and her son, Nero Caesar, Tiberius’s daughter-in-law and grandson.

Here there is a gap in the text covering two years. During those key years, first Agrippina (Germanicus’s widow), Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar (her young sons) were exiled, and Nero Caesar died. More seismically, Tiberius began to suspect his right-hand man, Sejanus, instrumental in so many plots against his enemies, to be conspiring against Tiberius himself. So Tiberius had him arrested in the senate and executed. At which point Sejanus’s divorced wife revealed to Tiberius that it was Sejanus and his lover Livilla (Drusus’s own wife) who had conspired to poison Drusus (Tiberius’s son). After this was revealed Livilla died, either killing herself or executed.

The fall of Sejanus was brutal but so was the aftermath. Previously consuls and senators and aristocrats had vied with each other to fall in with the emperor’s henchman to curry favour. Now all that arse-licking came to be regarded in a diametrically opposite light and many who had associated with Sejanus were now accused of being part of his plot to overthrow the emperor.

Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity with Sejanus. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age, eminence or obscurity, there they lay, strewn about – or in heaps. (p.209)

With great brutality Sejanus’s two young children were executed. Tacitus reports that, since capital punishment for a virgin was forbidden, she was first raped by the public executioner, then garotted. Both their bodies were then thrown onto the Gemonian steps (where the bodies of criminals and the disgraced were thrown in ignominy; p.199).

The deaths Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina the Elder (p.212) and then of two of her children: Nero Julius Caesar was accused of treason, declared by the senate an enemy of the state, banished to the island of Pontia where he was either killed or encouraged to kill himself in 31.

His brother, Drusus Caesar, Tiberius’s grandson was accused by Cassius Severus of plotting against Tiberius. He was imprisoned and confined to a dungeon on the Palatine in 30. He starved to death in prison in 33 after, according to Tacitus, being reduced to chewing the stuffing of his mattress.

This left young Gaius as their only surviving brother and at an early age he was sent to be Tiberius’s companion on Capri. Here he learned thorough-going debauchery from the old man and how to recognise and manage his moods. He was to succeed Tiberius on the latter’s death in 37 and is known to history by his nickname, Caligula.

The long description of Tiberius ends with ever-increasing terror, with scores of senators and knights accused of all kinds of crimes and queuing up to commit suicide. Tacitus describes Rome as awash with blood and piled with bodies which must have been an exaggeration. But it felt like that to those who lived through it.

Gaius Vibius Marsius is accused of adultery and decides to starve himself to death. Tacitus gives him a grim speech explaining to his friends that he doesn’t want to hang on the last few weeks until the obviously ill emperor dies, because he prophesies that the reign of Tiberius’s successor will be even worse (p.225).

The deaths of Nero Julius Caesar and his brother, Drusus Caesar left Tiberius Gemellus, the son of Drusus and Livilla, the grandson of the Emperor Tiberius, as hair. In 35 Gemellus, along with his cousin Gaius, were named joint-heirs by Tiberius. Upon Tiberius’s death in March 37, Gaius assumed the throne and had Gemellus killed (or forced to kill himself) in late 37 or early 38.

Degenerate times

Tacitus shares the universal belief among all ancient writers that the world was going to the dogs and that the age they were living in was witness to unprecedented degeneracy. Decline and fall. Sallust complained about the degenerate times he was describing in the 50s BC and Tacitus expresses exactly the same feeling 150 years later.

I am aware that much of what I have described, and shall describe, may seem unimportant and trivial. But my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome. Their subjects were great wars, cities stormed, kings routed and captured. Or, if home affairs were their choice, they could turn freely to conflicts of consuls with tribunes, to land- and corn-laws, feuds of conservatives and commons. Mine, on the other hand, is a circumscribed, inglorious field. Peace was scarcely broken – if at all. Rome was plunged in gloom, the ruler uninterested in expanding the empire. (p.173, book 4, section 31)

The futility of tyranny

As part of the general reign of terror and intimidation of every form of free speech and opinion, in 25 the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus was charged with, in his Histories, praising Brutus and describing Cassius as ‘the last of the Romans’. Cremutius put up a stirring defence in the senate (probably another speech invented by Tacitus), went home and starved himself to death. Which prompts Tacitus to reflect:

The senate ordered his books to be burned by the aediles. But they survived, first hidden and later republished. This makes one deride the stupidity of people who believe that today’s authority can destroy tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, repressions of genius increase its prestige. All that tyrannical conquerors, and imitators of their brutalities, achieve is their own disrepute and their victims’ renown.
(p.175, book 4, section 35)

Tacfarinas


Credit

Michael Grant’s fluent, energetic translation of Tacitus’s Annals was published by Penguin Books in 1956. References are to the revised 1971 edition, as reprinted in 1988.

Related link

Roman reviews

On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


Related link

Roman reviews

%d bloggers like this: